Photo by Helgi Halldórsson
As we experience Gullfoss, the “Golden Falls”, one of Iceland’s many scenic highlights, my local friend Jens sheds some light on the process of naming in his country.
“The naming system of Iceland, like its language, dates back to Viking times,” Jens says. “We take our surname from our father or mother, and not the family. My daughter’s surname would be Jensdóttir but my son is Einar Jensson. Women also keep their name on marriage, as they remain their father’s daughter.”
One odd consequence of this (besides great confusion for passport officers and hotel check-in staff) is that Iceland is the only country in the world where the telephone directory lists subscribers by order of first name, adding professions to reduce the confusion.
It is also usual to address people formally by their first name, rather than surname e.g. as Björk rather than Ms Guðmundsdóttir, or even Ms Björk. It’s a nice custom that gives the impression to outsiders such as me that Iceland is a small country where everyone knows everyone else. Maybe they do: there are only about 320,000 people in the whole country, the least populated in Europe, and 60 per cent of them live in and around Reykjavík.
This familiarity must have made Europe’s first parliament, dating to the 10th century, a very civilized thing, too. Sorry, I should spell it Thing, for that is the Icelandic name for it, one that led directly to the English word “hustings”. Thingvellir (Thing fields) is where the Vikings met to lay out new laws, with speakers standing on the Law Rock, now marked with a billowing Icelandic flag. It was here that Iceland adopted Christianity more than 1,000 years ago and where the modern Icelandic republic was founded in 1944.
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